A man in a grocery store reading the information on the back of a dog food container

How To Read a Dog Food Label and Understand Ingredients

Similar to human food labels, dog food labels can reveal a lot about the quality and nutritional makeup of the product. However, they can also be confusing and misleading at times.

In this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into reading dog food labels, understanding the terminology, and identifying which ingredients to look for or avoid.

The Importance of Understanding Labels

The ingredients in your pet’s food can significantly affect their health, so it’s important to feel comfortable reading dog food labels. If you understand the product label, you can evaluate the quality and nutritional balance of the food, as well as identify nutrients that you might need to supplement.

Labels can also help you avoid ingredients your pet is allergic to. If your pup does have an allergic reaction, you can work backward to determine which ingredient may be at fault.  

Decoding Dog Food Labels

Pet food labeling requirements can vary by state, but there are eight key requirements set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Understanding these labeling standards will help you easily determine if a dog food is high quality or not.

Labeling Requirements and the Guaranteed Analysis

The labeling requirements mandate pet food product packaging to include:

  • The product or brand name

  • The name of the species the food is intended for (i.e., dog food)

  • The quantity statement (amount of food by weight or volume)

  • The guaranteed analysis (nutritional makeup)

  • Ingredient statement (with ingredients listed in order from highest quantity to lowest quantity)

  • Nutritional adequacy statement

  • Feeding directions

  • Address of the food manufacturer or distributor

There are also details listed on many dog foods that don’t fall into these eight categories, including kilocalories, moisture content, general calorie statement, and more.

95% Rule

The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) sets additional standards for pet food labels. They have a few rules distributors and producers must follow when it comes to naming pet foods, one being the 95% rule.

This rule states that if the product name implies the food primarily contains a specific ingredient, then that ingredient must make up at least 70% of the product by weight — or 95%, excluding any added water. For example, “Yummy Chicken Cat Food” must contain at least 95% chicken, minus added water.

25% Rule

AAFCO’s 25% rule is similar, but it applies to foods with a larger variety of ingredients. For instance, “Beef Dinner for Senior Dogs” has to contain at least 10% beef by weight (or 25%, excluding added water).

If the name includes multiple ingredients, each one must make up at least 3% of the product weight. For example, “Senior Beef and Brown Rice Dinner” has to contain at least 3% of both of those ingredients and add up to 10% total.

“With” Rule

Another AAFCO requirement, the “with” rule, allows pet food companies to include additional ingredients in the product name by adding the word “with.” However, each named ingredient must make up at least 3% of the product by weight. An example could be “Healthy Coat Super Kibble with Chicken.”

Flavor Rule

Finally, the AAFCO flavor rule states that a product doesn’t need to have a large amount of an ingredient that’s simply providing flavor, but there are some caveats:

  1. The packaging has to indicate that it’s a flavor, not a primary ingredient (e.g., Fish-Flavored Cat Food).
  2. The flavor has to come from a listed ingredient.
  3. Both words — “fish” and “flavored” — have to appear in the same font and size.

Ingredients To Look For

Next, let’s get into which ingredients to look for in higher quantities to ensure food is high quality and can support your dog’s overall health.


Proteins can come in many varieties and qualities. To ensure your pup is eating the cleanest, most nutrient-dense protein, look for whole-meat animal protein, rather than processed meat meals. Additionally, if your pup has a sensitive stomach, consider choosing proteins that are more easily digestible, such as chicken or turkey.

Grains & Soy

Similar to proteins, grains and soy can vary in quantity and quality, so it’s important to look for minimally processed ingredients, like whole-grain oats, brown rice, and quinoa.

And when it comes to soy, as long as your pup doesn’t have a soy allergy, it’s okay in moderate amounts. You’ll likely see soy on ingredient lists as soybeans or soybean oil.


Vegetables are a vital part of a dog’s diet, as they provide tons of vitamins and nutrients and are naturally low fat. Make sure they are as minimally processed as possible to ensure their nutritional value is high.

Some of the best vegetables for dogs include beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, carrots, green beans, spinach, peas, and sweet potatoes.

Fats and Oils

Your dog’s diet should include a moderate amount of high-quality fats and oils (not exceeding 5.5% crude fat for adult dogs). Certain fats and oils contain fatty acids (omega-6 and omega-3), which can help support your pup’s skin and coat health, joint health, and cognitive function.

Look for ingredients like fish oil, algae oil, flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and sunflower oil.

Vitamins and Minerals

Similar to humans, dogs require a balance of vitamins and minerals in their diets to ensure their health. These include vitamins A, B (B12, B6, and thiamine), C, D, E, K, and choline. Pregnant dogs require additional vitamins like folic acid and iron.

Typically, balanced dog foods will include all of the necessary vitamins and minerals your pup needs in the correct amounts. But when in doubt, consult with your vet on supplements.

Ingredients To Avoid

Some dog foods do a much better job at supporting your dog’s wellness than others, so it’s important to be aware of potentially harmful ingredients, including:

Artificial Additives

Generally speaking, you should avoid artificial additives in dog foods. Some natural additives can be helpful, as they help food maintain its freshness — but knowing the difference is key.

Additives to avoid include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and ethoxyquin. On the flip side, natural preservatives like vitamin E (tocopherols) and vitamin C (ascorbic acid) are safe.


As we mentioned earlier, over-processed meat by-products aren’t ideal in dog food. They may be particularly harmful to dogs with allergies.

This is because by-products are low-quality, highly processed ingredients that may even contain otherwise inedible parts of an animal, like hooves, hair, or feathers. To support a clean diet, avoid any by-products or meat-meal ingredients.


Dog food “fillers” are things that don’t add much nutritional value to the recipe — but they do bulk it up so it looks like more. Corn, wheat, soy, white potatoes, and white rice are common fillers, and in large quantities, these fillers can decrease the nutritional density of the food and cause digestive issues.

Instead, look for foods that contain whole grains, fresh vegetables, or healthy fats, like pureed pumpkin, vegetables, and bone broth.

Nutritional Adequacy Statements

There are two very common nutritional adequacy statements you may see when choosing a dog food: “Complete and Balanced” and “Life Stages.” These statements are often on the back or sides of the pet food package in smaller print. Here’s what they mean:

  • Complete and Balanced: The product contains all the nutrients required for a balanced diet, and in the correct amounts, based on AAFCO nutrient profiles. This food can be your pet’s only food.

  • Life Stages: Recognized life stages include “gestation/lactation,” “growth,” “maintenance,” or “all life stages.” These designations can help you choose the right food for your dog’s age or specific needs.

Special Considerations Based on Life Stage, Health Needs, and Breed

The last thing to consider when choosing dog food is what life stage your dog is in. Certain life stages may require specific nutrients or ratios that may not be as important at other life stages.

  • Puppy: Puppies often require higher calorie content from protein and more essential amino acids than adult dogs to support their rapid growth.

  • Adult: Adult dogs, unless dealing with specific issues like weight gain, weight loss, or excessive shedding, can follow a standard adult maintenance diet.

  • Senior dog: Energy and activity may decrease among senior dogs, so they often don’t need as many calories per day as puppies and adult dogs.

  • After surgery: Depending on the surgery type, many dogs can benefit from high protein to support lean body mass. Check with your vet for a customized plan if your pup is recovering from surgery.

Make Healthy Food Choices for Your Furry Friend With The Honest Kitchen

As a pet owner, there’s a lot to consider when choosing food for your pup. However, understanding dog food labels will help you identify which ingredients and recipes are right for your dog’s health.

If you need a good place to start, take a look at the high-quality dog food recipes from The Honest Kitchen. All of The Honest Kitchen’s dog foods and treats — including dry food, wet food, and toppers — are human grade, packed with whole food ingredients, and made with taste and nutrition in mind.

Explore what The Honest Kitchen has to offer today!

*Health Disclaimer: This post is educational in nature and doesn’t constitute health advice. Please consult your pet's veterinarian or other healthcare professional for specific guidance on this topic.

Back to Blog